While Swinging London vibrated to the Mod sound of The Who and The Small Faces, an entirely different youth scene had developed half a world away – It was all Love and Peace on the west coast of America.
The hits of 1967, including San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair) by Scott McKenzie, Let’s Go To San Francisco by The Flower Pot Men, and San Franciscan Nights by Eric Burdon, advertised a counter-culture which had been evolving since 1965.
Centred on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district with its elegantly crumbling wooden Victorian houses, a new generation inspired by the beatniks of the 1950s came into being.
There are few crossroads with the name recognition of the San Francisco intersection of Haight and Ashbury.
A seemingly enchanted place, the Haight-Ashbury district begins at the top of a rise that gradually makes its way west to the beach.
The fog drifts up past Golden Gate Park with ritual regularity, settling over the gingerbread Victorians and the Monterey Pines.
In the space of a little under five years, the Haight traced an arc from a quaint if somewhat dilapidated working-class neighbourhood to the Mecca of the psychedelic counterculture and back again.
By the early 1970s, there was no longer any indication that the street had once hosted a vibrant alternative society. It had collapsed utterly under the weight of its own inner contradictions.
Comprised of a nine-block stretch of Haight Street ending at Golden Gate Park to the west, Haight-Ashbury – or ‘The Hashbury’ as it was affectionately dubbed – was the result of a mixture of happenstance and proximity, and the peculiar tolerance of San Francisco, a city well known for a certain moral lassitude left over from the Gold Rush era when it was a lascivious rough-and-tumble city of dubious morality, heralded as the Babylon of the west.
The city’s reputation made it an attractive spot for bohemians; waves of disaffected artists made habitual migrations to the City by the Bay throughout its history – most notably the Beats of the 1950s, who made it a prime destination in the worldwide Beatnik circuit, along with Paris, Tangiers, New York, and Los Angeles.
In 1963, Beatniks were fleeing North Beach to take advantage of the cheap rents and available storefronts of the Haight. But a sea change took place between the scruffy existential Beats and the earliest denizens of the Haight: LSD.
Haight-Ashbury was the site of a remarkable syncretism, an admixture of influences that coalesced over time into the psychedelic eddy that Haight Street became.
Like the collection of thrift-store finery and period costumes the original hippies fancied, their philosophy was fashioned from Eastern mysticism, comic books, science fiction, and the Beat writers who acted as a filtering agent through which the younger poets picked and chose their reading.
Similarly, acid-rock emerged out of a grab-bag of styles: Bebop Jazz improvisation, folk and bluegrass modalities, dabbed on a heavy impasto of garage-rock primitivism. For the hippies, LSD was their communion, and rock music their liturgy.
At first the scene was remarkably self-supporting, with small venues catering to a local group of cognoscenti.
In 1965, there were an estimated 800 hippies in residence. By 1966, new arrivals had flooded the Haight, with an estimated 15,000 hippies in residence.
A more disturbing statistic, but at this point hardly a blip on the radar were the 1,200 runaway teens who flocked to the Haight as if guided by some special teen-alienation magnet.
One striking feature of this counter-culture was its rejection of traditional American consumer society values and ethics. Hippies didn’t work (except in their own communes). They took drugs openly, and some indulged in group sex. The Haight-Ashbury scene was anti-war, against capitalism, and pro both love and dope.
Many hippie rock concerts were free, held either outdoors, or in huge ballrooms heavy with marijuana smoke and illuminated by complex psychedelic light shows and projections of slides and films.
Shops, boutiques, restaurants, and clubs sprang up to cater to the new arrivals, and an activist collective, the Diggers, provided for the needs of the more indigent among them with a soup kitchen, crash pads, and later, a free store.
Responding to the new attitude, veteran DJ Tom ‘Big daddy’ Donohue initiated ‘progressive FM radio’ on the city’s KMPX station. Ignoring the current pop charts and favouring album tracks (regardless of length). The format proved popular.
As disaffected teens from all over America (and the world) flocked to San Francisco, the record industry (part of the capitalist system the kids were rejecting) saw a new marketing opportunity, and before long the reputations of acts such as The Beach Boys and The Four Seasons were rendered quaintly obsolete by the music of The Electric Prunes, Strawberry Alarm Clock and other surrealistically titled outfits.
The increasing celebrity status of Haight-Ashbury was confirmed when the Greyhound Bus Co announced plans to run tourist trips through the area. Soon, many of the kids attending the shows at the Fillmore or Avalon Ballrooms, supposed palaces of psychedelic rock culture, were “weekend hippies”, holding down steady jobs throughout the week and dressing up when Friday night came around.
The year 1967 started off optimistically enough with a massive free concert and showcase of the local musicians. On 14 January, 20,000 hippies showed up for the first ‘Human Be-In and Gathering of the Tribes’ – an open-air event at the Polo Grounds in Golden Gate Park. Opened by LSD advocate Timothy Leary chanting his notorious slogan “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, it featured music by Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & The Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service.
It was by all accounts a magical event. The next logical phase, or so it seemed to the movers-and-shakers of the community, was to invite the youth of America to the Haight for the summer. They envisioned a kind of hippie training: the youth would come, get turned on, and return from whence they came with the blueprint for a new culture. It didn’t quite turn out that way.
Young people did arrive for the summer, but they were not the beautiful people the Haight habitués anticipated. “They had bad teeth and acne scars and it was easy to see why they hadn’t been voted homecoming king or queen back in Oshkosh or Biloxi or wherever they’d come from,” wrote Jay Stevens. “These kids were rejects; they’d come here because they were losers, and while they had a certain Christian appropriateness, it was not what the Council for the Summer of Love had expected.”
Writing in the New York Times in May 1967, Hunter S Thompson declared, “The Hashbury is the new capital of what is rapidly becoming a drug culture . . . Love is the password, but paranoia is the style”.
In other words, hippies saw drugs as a passport to bliss. But they were also a ticket to jail.
Thompson went on to suggest that the Hashbury was merely the tip of an iceberg because “drugs, orgies and freak-outs were almost as common to a much larger and more discrete” cross-section of ‘respectable’ San Franciscans.
Even though George Harrison visited Haight-Ashbury in August and conferred The Beatles‘ stamp of approval on the scene, the end was already in sight. In October, disillusioned flower children held the ‘Death of Hippie’ event, featuring a mock funeral to the protest at the commercialisation of their way of life.
As 1967 drew to a close, many of the first-generation hippies had moved out of the San Francisco area.
Ed Denson, manager of Country Joe and the Fish captured the mood when he said, “I’m very pessimistic. Most of the hippies I know don’t really understand what kind of world they’re living in. If they were more realistic, they’d stand a better chance of surviving”.
By summer’s end, the dream of a self-sufficient urban conclave of tripping Luddites had dissolved in a miasma of hard drugs, runaways, and incipient neglect. The fragile social infrastructure the counterculture had built was overcome by the onslaught. Tour buses and sight-seers flooded the district, as did reporters. Their dispatches only added to the throng of destitute, addled kids.
The indiscriminate use of every variety of drug was legion, as were drug busts, hence informing and informers. “The language was Love,” writes Hunter S. Thompson, “but the style was paranoia.”
That October, the Diggers held a mock burial of the “Hippie, son of Media” in Golden Gate Park. It was a pointed bit of street theatre, but it was after the fact. The wave had surged and broken, leaving human jetsam in its wake. By then, the Haight-Ashbury pioneers had already fled to higher ground.
By 1971 Haight Street was once again a depressed commercial district with a couple of struggling mom-and-pop enterprises which predated the hippies. Then came the lean years, the urban blight and street violence, but through the district’s darkest hour, tour buses continued to visit the neighbourhood, offering a glimpse of what had been.
By the mid-1980s, boutiques, used clothing stores and coffee shops lined the street. Bookstores, head-shops, and galleries peddled sixties nostalgia to the new generation of adherents – college students and European tourists who looked on the street as a holy relic.
And with the new-found prosperity, old problems reasserted themselves. Homeless celebrants ranged through the park and panhandled on the street corners, their ranks swelled by a second wave of runaway kids: teenage adherents of the Grateful Dead, punk rockers, racist skinheads. Predictably, street violence and drug abuse were not short in following.
Haight Street now lives on marketing the allure of that brief, heady period. There is no longer a pretence that Haight-Ashbury is anything but what it appears to be. Ironically, this new business cycle has thrived longer than the cultural moment on which its products are based.
Without its idealistic communitarian ethos, the Haight-Ashbury is certainly more resilient, but what was at one time disturbing, or thrilling, is now little more than a titillation, a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.